The upcoming Tarrant Regional Water District election is serving up two dramatically different assessments of how well the raw water provider does its job.
Board incumbents Marty Leonard and Jim Lane praise TRWD, which provides water to almost all of Tarrant County and covers an 11-county area, as good stewards of the water supply.
They support the $909 million Trinity River Vision/Panther Island Project and the $2.3 billion Integrated Pipeline Project — a partnership with Dallas Water Utilities — that will bring more water from East Texas to the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Craig Bickley and Michele Von Luckner, who are running as a slate against the incumbent directors, say TRWD lacks transparency. They also say TRWD has lost sight of its mission of flood control and water supply with projects like Trinity River Vision and has “abused” eminent domain.
Keith Annis, 43, a Fort Worth consultant who said he is not tied to the other challengers or incumbents, said the water district needs more openness about water quality for recreation along the Trinity River. He also said it needs to provide a more detailed explanation for Trinity River Vision funding, including spelling out how it will receive the remaining federal dollars needed to finish the project.
With such contrasting views of TRWD’s performance, the election will likely shape the future direction of the water district.
The election is May and early voting begins April 27.
Von Luckner and Bickley are expected to receive support from Dallas businessman Monty Bennett, who has sued TRWD. Both argue the board needs a fresh perspective
“In my role as a director on the TRWD board, I would work to restore the local community’s faith in the board by listening to the citizens and ratepayers, and thoroughly reviewing and analyzing all proposed and current contracts,” said Von Luckner, 40, a Fort Worth home health administrator
But Leonard, 78, a Fort Worth businesswoman who has served on the board with Lane since 2006, said TRWD has done a good job of preparing for Tarrant County’s future water needs and is in better shape than other North Texas water providers. She also believes Trinity River Vision will continue to be funded, pointing to the $17.4 million received from the Army Corps of Engineers in February. The project still has only about half of the money needed for completion, most of which is federal funding.
“It’s important for people to be elected who have the best interest of the water district in mind and are concerned about water supply, and flood control and water conservation,” Leonard said. “Based on the lawsuits and past experience we’ve had, that doesn’t appear to be the case with some of the folks opposing us.”
Annis said that in its long-term planning, TRWD isn’t paying enough attention to climate change, which he believes could leave the DFW area without enough water in the future.
“They’ve done a pretty decent job of talking about future population growth but they aren’t really looking at what changes in climate are going to do. …” Annis said. “They are not adequately prepared.”
The two candidates who receive the most votes will win the board seats. The boundaries for voting in the election include most, but not all, of Fort Worth, Azle, Edgecliff Village, Westworth Village and Westover Hills, and part of River Oaks.
This election is getting plenty of scrutiny, not only for the TRWD’s two expensive projects but also for the ongoing legal battles with Bennett as well as the flood of open records requests the district has received over the last two years.
“My greatest concern is that the TRWD has lost focus of its core mission, flood control and water supply, and that the majority of its funds are being misappropriated for projects that don’t fall under this domain,” said Bickley, 38, an engineering manager who lives outside the TRWD’s boundaries but qualified as a candidate because he owns a lot in River Oaks, which is in the district.
The interest in the upcoming election has been seen at recent board meeting. Water district staff spent the majority of last Tuesday’s meeting explaining its budget and what role TRWD plays in local water rates.
The criticisms of TRWD frustrate Lane, 70, a lawyer and former Fort Worth City Council member, who said most of the repeated open records requests are for things that “simply aren’t there.” On water rates, Lane said TRWD’s raw water charge only accounts for 12 to 20 percent of overall water bills. He said TRWD has acted responsibly in using eminment domain and is well-prepared for the region’s future water needs, and he blames Bennett, a Dallas hotelier, for the attacks on the water district.
“If you want a Dallas businessman having control of the Panther Island project and controlling the future of your water, vote for the other guys,” Lane said. “This race is about a water district has planned for the future and continued growth with Integrated Pipeline that can handle our water needs for the next 20 or 30 years and continues to search for other sources of water.”
Bennett disputed Lane’s assertions in an email.
“The entrenched incumbents continue to try and scare the voters with grandiose stories about an evil Dallasite trying to steal their water,” Bennett said. “This is absurd. For the record, I have no interest in Fort Worth’s water, or the Trinity River Vision or the Integrated Pipeline project.
“I’ve successfully blocked the TRWD from snatching my mother's family land in east Texas. My only interest now is to help Mary Kelleher continue the fight against a heavy handed government agency, with numerous allegations of corruption, cronyism, and self-dealing, that treats citizens, including me, very poorly while neglecting its core duties of water provision and flood control.”
Last year, incumbent board member Kelleher, who has often been at odds with the other four board members over records and policies, reported three donations from Bennett’s MJB Operating LP totaling $83,960.88. Bickley and Melissa McDougall, who both declared themselves candidates in 2014 for an election that was never held, received more than $75,000 each from Bennett.
Both Bickley and Von Luckner say they will have the financial support of Tarrant County residents and also raise questions about campaign contributions from those doing business with TRWD. In the 2013 election, local engineering firms Freese and Nichols and CDM Smith both contributed to the Clean Water Committee, a PAC that has historically supported incumbents.
Annis, former executive director of the Tarrant County Democratic Party, said he does not expect to receive any donations from Bennett and will not accept them if he does.
PACs getting involved
In this election, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price has endorsed Leonard and Lane, her opponent in the 2011 mayor’s race.
Former Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief is serving as treasurer for the Our Water, Our Future PAC, which filed with the water district and has been formed to raise money for the incumbents. The Clean Water Committee has also filed with TRWD as a PAC. Eric Fox is listed as treasurer.
Another PAC has filed with the Texas Ethics Commission: Direct Action Texas PAC, with Aaron Harris of North Richland Hills listed as treasurer. Harris is working on the campaign for Bickley and Von Luckner.
With the election looming, Bennett’s legal battles against TRWD continue.
Bennett sued the district in 2013, arguing that the board circumvented the Open Meetings Act by effectively making most of its decisions in two-person committees, then having the board rubber-stamp them with little public discussion.
After a district court ruled in favor of Bennett, the 2nd Court of Appeals said in November that TRWD did not violate the Open Meetings Act. Bennett has appealed the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court where briefs must be submitted by April 13. An attempt by TRWD to use eminent domain to acquire property surrounded by Bennett’s ranch has also been appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.
Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698